Despite the pandemic — or maybe, because of it — early season skiing is attracting a good crowd.
Patrick Schmidt was supposed to be starting his freshman year at Northwestern University. Instead, he’s taking a gap year because of the coronavirus. Schmidt will be commuting from Denver to a job at Beaver Creek. He plans to do a lot of skiing. Schmidt, standing in the parking lot at Keystone on opening day, said he’s prepared for the new rules.
“I’m trying to be as safe as I can — my parents are pushing their 60s and I’m still going to be living with them for a little while so obviously I’ve got some concerns there,” Schmidt said. “But I think everyone so far that I’ve seen has been wearing masks, so I’m not terribly concerned.”
Most of the state’s ski areas are opening this month for the first time since being shut down when the pandemic hit in March. A record spike in coronavirus cases is putting resorts' safety protocols to the test as ski season kicks off.
Many ski areas were open for summer sports like hiking and biking — but those activities don’t draw the same crowds that typically descend on Colorado’s mountain towns to ski and snowboard.
The scene at Keystone’s base area was somewhat subdued on opening day, with darkened storefronts and blocked-off lockers. But people were still excited to be there, and didn’t seem bothered by the relative lack of amenities.
“I don’t care — just open the chair lift,” said Chris Twig, who came from Denver to snowboard. “Let’s go to the top and then to the bottom again.”
Resort operators are using a variety of mechanisms to control crowding on lift lines and other high-traffic areas. Vail, which owns Keystone, is requiring reservations at all of its North American resorts — even for season pass holders. Spots at Keystone have been selling out within hours, leaving some people empty-handed.
Take Matt Siniscal. He flew to Colorado from Washington, D.C., to ski. He was able to secure a spot for the first day at Keystone, a Friday, but wasn’t able to reserve all the days he wanted.
“Right as soon as I got off the plane, I had to make the reservations,” he said. “Did not get in Saturday and Sunday, but got a couple of days next week booked.”
Vail won’t disclose how many people are allowed on the mountain on any given day. But Vail spokesmen Ryan Huff says there will be more reservations available later in the season as more terrain opens. The roughly 3,000-acre resort had just 60 acres ready on opening day, Huff said.
“For the vast majority of days, anyone who wants to ski and ride will be able to,” Huff said. “Just given it’s opening day, we have limited terrain. That’s why we’re booked up so quickly.”
Most resorts are using some variation of a reservation system to manage crowds. For example, Copper Mountain is using parking reservations to limit the number of people who show up. At least one resort, Arapahoe Basin, has taken to pleading with its pass holders to ski less over the upcoming weekend so as not to overwhelm limited capacity.
“Is it possible to move your ski day to a weekday? If you were going to ski two days over the next three, could you ski just one?” A-Basis COO Alan Henceroth wrote in a blog post yesterday.
The high demand so far is a good sign for ski resorts — and for the state’s economy. It’s notable that people are willing to fly across the country to ski during a pandemic. Colorado accounts for roughly a quarter of all ski visits in the U.S., according to the most recent data from the Colorado University Leed School of Business.
Still, the surge in cases could put a damper on the season. Keystone had to further reduce capacity at dining establishments when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment moved Summit County to a high-risk level days before the resort opened, Vail’s Huff said.
Any reduction in traffic at the ski resorts filters down to the restaurants, hotels and shops in surrounding communities that rely heavily on winter tourism.
Small businesses got crushed during the first wave of the pandemic, said Will Cook, the president and CEO of Vail Health, a health care system with locations in Eagle and Summit counties. A lockdown similar to what the state experienced in March and April could be devastating, he said.
“We’re all trying like heck to stop the most recent surge,” Cook said. “Mostly to protect patients, but also to keep the ski mountains open.”
Outdoor activities like skiing — where people have plenty of room to spread out — are relatively safe, said Michelle Barron, who specializes in infectious disease at the University of Colorado hospital. It’s not difficult to maintain six feet of distance when you’ve got skis on, she said. Additionally, most people are accustomed to wearing some kind of face covering on the mountain, she said.
The real test is what happens when people are done skiing.
“It’s apres skiing, it's maybe some hot tubbing and condo life and that concerns me because I think that those are the instances in which spread, obviously, could occur,” Barron said.